Sunday, 13 August 2017

On whether he warned us

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian writer from the 1920s and 1930s. Exiled by fascism, he committed suicide in 1942. Now liberals hold him up as a prophet of tolerance and internationalism. Why? And who was he really?

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian middlebrow writer known for his novellas and for his historical biographies. His work was widely translated between the wars and was immensely popular. From quite a young age he travelled widely, especially in Europe, and had friends in the arts in much of the continent. But he was Jewish and in 1934, sensing what would happen in Austria, he went into exile in England – ironically, one of the few Western countries where he was not well known. In 1940 he moved to the US and eventually to Brazil, where, despairing of Europe’s future, he committed suicide with his wife in Petrópolis in February 1942 at the age of 60.

Zweig in 1939 (NPG/Bassano)
Until recently Zweig, once a best-seller, was largely forgotten. In recent years, however, there’s been a revival – and this time it has extended to Britain, where he has been championed by the Pushkin Press, which has brought out new editions of much of his oeuvre, both his biographies of historical figures, and his fiction. Some years ago Pushkin published a new edition of Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, begun in 1934 and finished just before his death in 1942. It is less a conventional autobiography, more a sentimental journey through Zweig’s world as a cosmopolitan young writer before the First World War, when he knew figures such as Rodin and Rilke. The book describes, too, the war itself, its aftermath and the gathering storm of fascism.  Pushkin has now brought out Messages From A Lost World, a collection of lectures and articles Zweig produced between 1916 and 1941, translated by Will Stone. Much of this material has hitherto been unavailable or never existed in English.

Why this sudden interest in Zweig? He is long dead and, although very popular in his lifetime, was not a literary heavyweight. He had languished for years in obscurity; I only discovered him myself when searching for someone else (Arnold Zweig, the pro-Soviet author of The Axe of Wandsbeck). But now it seems we cannot get enough of him. There is a clue as to why in a recent brief piece by George Prochnik, one of Zweig’s biographers (The Impossible Exile, 2015), in The Atlantic (February 6 2017):

I wonder how far along the scale of moral degeneration Zweig would judge America to be in its current state. We have a magnetic leader, one who lies continually and remorselessly—not pathologically but strategically, to placate his opponents, to inflame the furies of his core constituency, and to foment chaos. The American people are confused and benumbed by a flood of fake news and misinformation. Reading in [The World of Yesterday] how, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, many well-meaning people “could not or did not wish to perceive that a new technique of conscious cynical amorality was at work,” it’s difficult not to think of our own present predicament.
In other words, he resonates with those who hold certain views about our own times. This seems to be the case also from Nicholas Lezard’s adulatory review of Pushkin’s reissue of The World of Yesterday  (The Guardian, December 4 2009):

 ...[T]his is more than just an autobiography; it is a long lament for a lost world, a testament to the values of decency, toleration, humanism, and artistic and cultural endeavour ...he has produced a document which, however well you think you know the story, is essential to our understanding of history. For it was as an enthusiast for the pan-European cultural project that Zweig found his greatest motivation and, eventually, his greatest pain... 

Here we have Zweig used as a stick with which to beat Trump in the US and also, though only by implication, to support European integration in the UK.  If I wished to be cynical, I would say that the Zweig revival was nothing more than the anglophone liberal establishment co-opting a long-forgotten mediocre Austrian writer in order to make points of their own, exploiting the pathos of his death to do so. But is that fair?  It doesn’t help that Zweig divided the critics during his own lifetime. His sales were enormous. In Brazil, he received a state funeral in the presence of President Getúlio Vargas (himself to commit suicide a few years later).

Yet in a highly critical piece in the London Review of Books (Vermicular Dither, January 28 2010), critic Michael Hoffman excoriated Zweig and pointed out that other writers of the era had had no time for him. “As well as knowing him best, a man’s contemporaries have every reason for getting him wrong,” wrote Hoffman, “but the fact remains that there is an unusual consensus here – Mann, Musil, Brecht, Hesse, Canetti, Hofmannsthal, Kraus – [all considered that], save in in commercial terms, [he was] an utterly negligible figure.”

To justify his revival, Zweig would have to bring us some message of his own from the time in which he lived. There are two ways one can do this from the grave: as a witness; or as a prophet. The World of Yesterday would be his claim to the first role. Messages from a Lost World, his lectures and articles, would establish his claim to the second. Do either of these books succeed on those levels?

The answer to that is, in fact, quite messy.

Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday was published not long after his death. It has never really disappeared, but has come back into vogue of late. It is alternately infuriating, charming and gripping. It is, at its best, profoundly vivid. One reason for its impact today is simply that Zweig was well-connected, and the book includes pen-portraits of many figures who are still historically important. Many are literary or artistic; we meet Romain Rolland (who Zweig knew well) and Auguste Rodin; in one of the book’s best passages, Zweig sees the master at work in his studio, so absorbed in his work that he forgets the young writer’s presence, and is startled when he realises that Zweig is still there. Hofmannsthal appears, and gets more generous treatment than he ever gave Zweig, who he despised (one of the good things about Zweig’s own memoir is that it is largely spiteless). Richard Strauss is also in the book; Zweig briefly succeeded Hofmannsthal as Strauss’s librettist, to the mortification of the Nazis. Neither are all Zweig’s acquaintances from the arts. He knew, and warmly describes, German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, who he saw not long before his tragic assassination in Berlin – an event supposed, by some, to have helped set Germany on the road to Nazism. There is also a memorable description of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, who was Zweig’s first editor.

But The World of Yesterday can often grate. Zweig is an incorrigible name-dropper. As Leo Carey remarked in a review in The New Yorker (The Escape Artist, August 27 2012), it is sometimes “tempting to see his sedulous gathering of eminent friendships as a counterpart of his manuscript collecting” (Zweig was a noted collector of scores, manuscripts and memorabilia). Late in the book there is a long list of those who, he says, stayed with him in Salzburg (including not only Hoffmanstahl but also Thomas Mann, who does not appear to have liked him much either). There is also a whiff of cant. Early on he claims that he wondered if he should ever have dared submit his early work. Later there’s more evidence of his wretched false modesty when he recounts how gobsmacked he is when Maxim Gorky is to write an intro to his work, or he affects to have been humbled to have been approached by an American publisher (it was Benjamin Huebsch of Viking). “Such apparent success was apt to confuse one whose faith, hitherto, had been in his good intentions rather than in his ability and the efficacy of his work.” Oh, do shut up, Stefan. After all, there is an undercurrent of ego simply in making one’s work available.

One is also irritated when he ‘modestly’ praises his own writing, citing his “distaste for everything redundant and long-winded... I had always felt it incumbent on me to study the causes of the influence of books or personages within their own time, and I could not but ask myself in hours of reflection to what particular characteristics my books owed their, to me, unexpected success.” He then says that it was his concision, which is scarcely evident in this passage. In fact, Michael Hofmann goes so far as to refer to his “abundant, facile and unhindered lifelong logorrhoea.” That is not fair, but it is true that Zweig could be wordy.

Neither is Zweig always a reliable witness. He spent the latter part of the First World War in Switzerland (for reasons that will be discussed below), and then recounts how he returned across the Austrian frontier to a most poignant moment:

Upon alighting I became aware of an odd restlessness among the customs officers and police. [A]n old lady in black with her two daughters, from her carriage and clothes presumably an aristocrat... [was] visibly excited and constantly pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.

A train rolls slowly into the station:

...not the customary, shabby, weather-beaten kind, but with spacious black cars, a train de luxe ...Then I recognized behind the plate glass window of the car Emperor Karl, the last emperor of Austria standing with his black-clad wife, Empress Zita. I was startled; the last emperor of Austria, heir of the Hapsburg dynasty which had ruled for seven hundred years, was forsaking his realm! 

It is a wonderful moment – but a few pages later he describes how the cold autumn air came through the broken windows of his own carriage as he rode on into Austria. But the Emperor did not leave Austria in the autumn but on March 24 1919; moreover he entered Switzerland with a British escort, something Zweig would surely have noticed. In short, Zweig was probably not there. 

Oliver Matuschek, author of an excellent recent biography of Zweig, Three Lives, does not mention these disparities, but notes it is strange that Zweig had never mentioned this incident before. He is reluctant to accuse Zweig of lying, , but concludes: “The most likely explanation is that Zweig’s account is not to be taken literally, as a description of events that he actually witnessed, but rather as a narrative allegory.” This is a polite way of saying that Zweig made it up.

Matuschek is a little harsher regarding an episode from 1911 that is not in The World of Yesterday, but which Zweig had recounted elsewhere. In April 1911, the dying Gustav Mahler was brought home by his wife and family aboard the German liner Amerika; the young Zweig, who had been visiting New York, happened to be aboard. Zweig’s account of the voyage in the presence of the dying composer was emotional. But in fact he only saw him once, from a distance, on disembarkation. He had sent an offer of help to the family, but Alma Mahler was suspicious of his motives and later said that far from helping, Zweig had disappeared rapidly at Cherbourg. Once again, however, Matuschek seems to suggest that Zweig is not being overtly dishonest; rather, that he felt he had a duty to chronicle what he saw as his presence at history. He may be right. The fact remains that, as the work of a witness, The World of Yesterday must be found wanting, and it is therefore hard not to call much else in the book – the distinguished friendships, for example – into question. 

But if Zweig did wish to capture history in The World of Yesterday, he succeeded – not in his relentless name-dropping, or in his portraits of the great and the good, or in moments such as the departure of the Emperor, but when he was not trying so hard. It is in these passages that he tells us most.

Thus he goes to the quiet resort of Baden to enjoy the summer: “Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in their tender green...” One day, reading in the park,he senses a flurry of disturbance; the band stops playing; people press towards a news placard. What has happened is the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. But nobody seems terribly upset.

Franz Ferdinand lacked everything that counts for real popularity in Austria ...He was never seen to smile, and no photographs showed him relaxed. He had no sense for music, and no sense of humour, and his wife was equally unfriendly. My almost mystic premonition that some misfortune would come from this man with his bulldog neck and his cold, staring eyes, was  ..shared by the entire nation; and so the news of his murder aroused no profound sympathy. Two hours later signs of genuine mourning were no longer to be seen.

Zweig sees no reason to change his plans and trots off to visit friends in Belgium, where the Belgian army has started to prepare for war; even this seems slightly farcical (in a charming detail, we learn that their machine-guns are mounted on carts pulled by dogs). It comes as a shock when he realises that war really is imminent, and he takes the last train to cross into Germany. The atmosphere of that summer – the insouciance regarding the assassination, the doubt there will be war – is well expressed. And yet Zweig has sensed an undercurrent. For the last year he has been uneasy. First there is the arrest of Alfred Redl, a spy at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian intelligence machine (this is a fascinating episode, well described by Fitzroy Maclean in his book Take Nine Spies). Then he finds himself watching newsreels in a cinema in Tours and is taken aback when the Kaiser and Franz Joseph appear on the screen:

A spontaneous wild whistling and stamping of feet began in the dark hall. Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant, I was frightened. I was frightened to the depths of my heart. For I sensed how deeply the poison of the propaganda of hate must have advanced through the years... 

It may be these incidents did not alarm him so much at the time as he would have us believe. Even so, resonance can be retrospective, and he is telling us a lot here. This does echo in our own time; the media politics of hate, a rottenness at the heart of the establishment, and a failure to know when they are coming home to roost. One wonders if we will recognize the beginnings of the third world war. Could it be taking shape in some current crisis – perhaps the confrontation between Qatar and its neighbours?

It goes on. Zweig’s description of the aftermath of the First World War is an excellent read. As the Austrian currency collapses, Germans stream over the border to Salzburg to quaff multiple steins of virtually-free beer. Then along comes the German inflation of 1923 and the Austrians stream into Bavaria to get tanked up. A visit to Berlin:

Into the stove, 1923 (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)
For a hundred dollars one could buy rows of six-storey houses on Kurfűrstendamm… some adolescent boys who had found a case of soap forgotten in the harbour disported themselves for months in cars and lived like kings ...All values were changed, and not only material ones; the laws of the State were flouted, no moral code was respected, Berlin was transformed into the Babylon of the world. ...the Germans introduced all their vehemence and methodological organization into the perversion. Along the entire Kurfűrstendamm powdered and rouged young men sauntered and they were not all professionals; every high school boy wanted to earn some money and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame. ...Whoever lived through these apocalyptic months, these years, disgusted and embittered, sensed the coming of a counterblow, a horrible reaction. ...For the German people, a disciplined folk, did not know what to do with their freedom and already looked impatiently toward those who were to take it from them.

Is that us, bored with our cheap booze, porn and wide-screen TVs? Is the election of Trump, and Brexit, a result of sheer boredom and frustration with ourselves? If so, The World of Yesterday did warn us.

I began by saying that, to justify the new attention being showered on him, Zweig would have to justify his stature as either a witness or a prophet. His claim to be a witness rests mainly on The World of Yesterday. It is flawed. Sometimes it is long-winded and discursive. At other times Zweig tries too hard to insert himself into history, in claiming (for example) that he saw the last Emperor leave, or Mahler on the point of death; at these points the book is misleading, or simply not true. Yet maybe Matuschek is right to forgive him, for in a broader sense, The World of Yesterday really is an extraordinary work of witness. For the moment, with reservations, I’m with the defence.

But what of those who see Zweig as a prophet, trying to warn us from the past? For this we turn to the second book, Messages from a Lost World. The title does in itself claim, for Zweig, the mantle of a prophet (it isn’t his title; the book is a modern anthology of Zweig’s articles and speeches put together in 2016 by the Pushkin Press). The pieces in Messages from a Lost World vary in subject, but mostly reflect on Zweig’s sense of loss for the cosmopolitan, unified Europe of his youth, and his wish to see the borders come down again. Given this subject matter, and the circumstances of Zweig’s death, it’s easy to see why Pushkin would think this book relevant for 2016, with its rising nationalisms and threat of European disunity.

On first reading I was rather impatient with the book. Translator Will Stone suggests in his detailed introduction that Zweig’s internationalism was really just a series of personal connections, and there is some evidence for this in this collection as well as  in The World Of Yesterday. The phrase that kept occurring to me was “liberal elite”. There also seemed to be a hefty dollop of nostalgia. Zweig seemed to hark back to a pre-WW1 Europe that was indeed united for the educated and multilingual, but a place of division for the rest. This contrast has a nasty modern resonance.
This is evident in one of the earlier pieces in the book, European Thought In Its Historical Development, a lecture given in 1932 in Florence.  Zweig traces several divisions and reunifications of Europe. The fall of Rome splits Europeans asunder, but they are reunited, to some extent, by the founding of the universal Church, which replaces temporal power with a spiritual one. Then Latin revives and “spiritual men across Europe ...can now correspond with each other again ...It matters not in the epoch of Humanism whether you study in Prague, Oxford or Paris.” Well, that does not help if you happen to be an illiterate goatherd, or even a modestly prosperous merchant, but this dimension seems not to have engaged Zweig. Instead he recounts the continuing atomization and reunification, as he sees it, of the continent. The Reformation splits civilization apart again; music reunites it, but the introduction of nationalism into music shatters the surface once more, according to Zweig.

In fact, national music was the expression of a struggle for freedom from empires, and cannot be regarded as simply a divisive force. And in general, these arguments present Zweig as an elitist whose concept of European unity was profoundly superficial. Worse, they present him as a reactionary. Not long after reading Messages From A Lost World, I happened also to read Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, in which he analyses a certain type of intellectual reactionary – one who believes that all was well before The Fall, whatever, for them, that Fall happened to be (and he quotes the Reformation as one example). Is that all that Zweig was? If so, translating these pieces was a waste of time; we can make our own nostalgia.

Worse, there is the feeling that Zweig is serving a class interest – a project of an international elite. Zweig did realise this at some level. In European Thought In Its Historical Development, he comments that  “only a slender allegiance by all states to a superior governing body could relieve current economic difficulties, reduce the propensity for war – [but] ...For until now it has been the domain ...of a selective higher class and its roots have not yet penetrated the roots of the people.” I was reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s 2016 book Against the Double Blackmail.  When Western liberals point the finger at working people in their own countries for being bigoted peasants, says Žižek, this is part of the “culture wars” fuelling movements such as Trump’s (he could have added Brexit in Britain, had he written the book a few months later). The “culture wars”, in his opinion, are themselves class conflict between the disadvantaged and a liberal elite that wishes to denigrate them to maintain its own position. At times it seems that all Zweig is doing is unconsciously confirming Žižek’s present-day analysis from the depths of the last century.

It does not help that for a man being praised for his foresight on fascism, Zweig actually did little, in the public space, to fight it. Leo Carey, in an absorbing piece in the The New Yorker (The Escape Artist, August 27 2012), comments that he was often asked to support anti-Nazi and Jewish causes:

He was anything but outspoken, however, and his silence frustrated other writers of the time and has been much criticized since. Klaus Mann, who failed to get him to contribute to an émigré journal he was running, was disparaging of Zweig’s decision to remain “ ‘objective,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘just’ toward the deadly enemy.

Arendt: A harsh judgement
Hannah Arendt was contemptuous. In 1943, not long after his death, she condemned Zweig in the strongest terms for not fighting for the Jewish people:

Without the protective armor of fame, naked and disrobed, Stefan Zweig was confronted with the reality of the Jewish people. ...Thus this Jewish bourgeois man of letters, who had never concerned himself with the affairs of his own people, became nevertheless a victim of their foes and felt so disgraced that he could bear his life no longer

... For honor never will be won by the cult of success or fame, by cultivation of one's own self, nor even by personal dignity. From the "disgrace" of being a Jew there is but one escape-to fight for the honor of the Jewish people as a whole.

This is probably far too harsh. It seems to suggest that Zweig’s suicide was driven by shame at being Jewish. True, Zweig never seems to have bought into Zionism, despite knowing and admiring Herzl when he was younger.  But there is no evidence I know of that Zweig felt shame at being Jewish. His suicide was driven by his despair at the death of the civilised world he had known. Moreover, while he may not have been an activist, he did quietly assist fellow-writers who had fallen on hard times in this period; according to Matuschek, he was really quite generous.

Where Arendt may have a point, however, is the suggestion that Zweig’s fame and prosperity had put him into a protective bubble in which he did not feel the brutal reality of Nazism until quite late. In fact, although he went into precautionary exile in London in 1934, he continued to visit Austria right up until Anschluss. As Arendt wrote in 1943 of The World of Yesterday (which had just been published): “The world that Zweig depicts was anything but the world of yesterday; naturally, the author of this book did not actually live in the world, only on its rim. The gilded trellises of this peculiar sanctuary were very thick...”

But Zweig had paid his dues, in the First World War if not against fascism. He had written a pacifist play during the First World War; it was by all accounts not very good, but could have got him into serious trouble, especially since it was produced during the war in neutral Switzerland (this was why Zweig was there when the war ended). As to the narrow nature of Zweig’s internationalism, even Arendt acknowledges that Zweig did, in the end, understand that he lived in a changed world. Reading Messages from a Lost World, one does see when this understanding came to him, for Zweig’s thinking had evolved before he died. The European Thought essay is not the best thing in this book. There is also a remarkable lecture called The Historiography of Tomorrow, given during a lecture tour in the US in early 1939. This is seven years after European Thought; much had happened in between, not least that Zweig had been forced into exile.

Zweig's home in Petrópolis (A. Maislinger/Creative Commons)
In the intervening period, Zweig appears to have moved from a theoretical support for closer international cooperation to the idea of a totally different world. In Historiography he explains how, while moving house, he has found an old history book from his schooldays and is taken aback that its chief objective is to impress upon the pupil the greatness of the Austrian empire in which s/he has been raised. “But twelve hours by rail from Vienna France or Italy, the school textbooks were prepared with the directly opposing scenario: God or the spirit of history laboured solely for the Italian or French motherland.” The key dates, he says, are all wars. “It is deeply pessimistic and depressing."

As this lecture progressed, it seems, Zweig argued for a new set of values on which to base the study of history. In a telling passage, he points out that in 1797 Napoleon defeated Austria on Italian soil at Rivoli – but that victory, the type of event lauded in history schoolbooks, has long collapsed into insignificance, whereas in the same year and region Alessandro Volta produced the first feeble spark from his first battery – an event of far greater weight. More important still, Zweig states that: “I still remember the revelation I experienced many years ago, from a book which completely overturned [my] conception of history.” It was, he says, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, in which the theory of a struggle for existence is challenged by the notion that evolution is the product of cooperation. So Zweig is not driven solely by solidarity with an international elite of which he is a member; there is something deeper here. And he is certainly not a mere nostalgic – at least not by the end of his life.

Even in the earlier pieces, in which Zweig is driven mainly by nostalgia, he has a message for us. In almost the last piece in this book, The Vienna of Yesterday – a lecture given in Paris in April 1940, just a few weeks before the fall of France – he talks of the artistic identity forged by a Vienna whose best and brightest came from elsewhere. The fact that they did, did not negate its genius; it was its genius. “Gluck,” he says, “came from Bohemia, Haydn from Hungary, Caldara and Salieri from Italy, Beethoven from the Rhineland, Mozart from Salzburg, Brahms from Hamburg, Bruckner from High Austria, Hugo Wolf from Styria.” The important point is not that they didn’t come from Vienna; it is that they went there. Eighty years later, in a time of rising borders, this is something London would do well to remember.

Zweig is a fragile figure in some ways. It does sometimes feel that his suicide has lent him a weight that his career alone would not have done. But his contemporaries were – being jealous perhaps – unfair.  Reading his fiction today, one finds a tendency to exposition rather than inference. But there are interesting psychological insights (Zweig was an associate of Freud); I found his novella The Burning Secret very satisfying for that reason.  He is not perhaps a great writer. But he is a good one.  And he is a witness; The World of Yesterday is fascinating, even if its perspective is narrow and its facts open to dispute.

A street in Rio de Janeiro
As for Messages from a Lost World, these essays and lectures have been revived because they appear to make a link between our own times and Zweig’s, rather than for any intrinsic merit of their own. They aren’t really great literature; the early selections, in particular, are quite verbose, and nothing in them is a true revelation. On first reading I rather dismissed them. But I should not have done, for there is a fascinating evolution in these pieces, from nostalgia for a lost world to, in his last months, an understanding that the way led not back to that world but to a different concept of global organization. 

Besides, although these pieces are mostly not great writing, there are times when they make you sit up. In a 1936 essay called 1914 and Today, Zweig writes: Argentina I visited the slaughterhouses and saw those beasts down in their enclosure, absorbed in their gentle grazing and lowing (a few pairs were even still indulging in the pleasures of love) whilst on the floor above you saw the flashes, heard the hammering of machines that ten minutes later would kill them, chop, carve, slice, disembowel and dismember them. But then the animal is enveloped by its unconscious; it has no idea to where it is led. Our human herds in Europe, who are today much closer to the butcher than they realize, have no excuse. ...Deep down they all know the menace that threatens and their dearth of will to confront it.

At the beginning of this piece, I asked whether the Zweig revival was nothing more than the anglophone liberal establishment exploiting a long-dead middlebrow writer for their own purposes. To an extent I think they are doing just that, and he cannot really bear the weight that is now being placed on his shoulders. It is our own job to find our own arguments for our own time. Indeed I wonder if Arendt would make just that point, were she still with us.

But that does not mean Zweig has nothing to tell us. The last piece in this book, In This Dark Hour, is an address given to the American PEN Club in My 1941. Zweig told his audience that  “this dark hour” was necessary to make everyone realize that “freedom is as vital to our soul as breathing to our body.” Or, as he also said on that occasion: “Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of the stars above our heads.” Let us hope that we never have to re-learn that lesson in my lifetime.

Mike Robbins’s novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Friday, 23 June 2017

On truth and lies. And how to show a troll the difference

Appalled by fake news and half-truths online? In despair at the latest lie on your neighbour’s Facebook page? Fear not. You can fight back. Let’s go trollhunting

There are plenty of lies flying around nowadays, online and in the media. The 2016 Brexit referendum and American election were distorted by fake news and half-truths. The Internet has arrived in politics in a big way and it ain’t pretty.  It shouldn’t be a surprise. The late Günter Grass foresaw its use by the alt-right back in 2004, in his last novel, Crabwalk.  Now the web is heaving with stories from dodgy websites, propagated by social media and reinforced by half-truths from the nastier newspapers. And let’s be clear – while the worst abuses come from the right, the left has had a hand in this as well.

Mill: "the collision of adverse opinions" (Hulton Archive)
This is dangerous. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty (1859), the lifeblood of democracy is the information we need with which to make decisions. Since “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth,” he wrote, “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” We don’t know what Mill would make of Facebook, but I suspect he would tell us that this was the new marketplace in which ideas must compete, and that we needed to be out there. But sometimes we feel defenceless. We read something in the Mail or the Express or on someone's Facebook post and we suspect at once that it is either not true or not the whole truth, but we don't know for certain and can't prove it, so we shrug our shoulders and let it go unchallenged.

But we do have the weapons for trollhunting, and sometimes they're much easier to use than you might suppose. First, to track your troll, you need to recognize their droppings, and the exact species from which they came. So here’s a taxonomy of online bollocks.

What’s your source? 
If you're not sure whether the source site quoted is credible or not, Wikipedia will often tell you who funds it. The other day I had an argument about renewables with someone online and he threw figures at me that he said were from the US Gov't's Energy Information Administration (EIA). But they weren't on the EIA site and it turned out he'd got them from something called the Institute of Energy Research. It took me two minutes to find out it was funded by the Koch Brothers. (And they had quoted the figures without giving a proper source; they claimed they were from the EIA, but I could not find the figures on the EIA’s own site, and the data I did find there pointed in another direction.)

Relevant and meaningful? 
With a bit of effort, you can sometimes you can detect b.s. very quickly. It may be that all you need to do with a post or a news story is check its source. If it's Breitbart or similar, it's partisan. That does not of course mean that it is automatically lying. But it is unlikely to be the whole truth, so you'll probably find their original story was not properly referenced and can't be confirmed.

Besides checking the source, sometimes you can check whether a figure or fact being stressed is in fact meaningful. Thus the Daily Express ran a news article a few weeks ago drooling at the prospect of £2bn-a-year trade with India when Britain was free to trade with them after Brexit. What they didn't say was that Britain’s trade with the EU is currently worth more like £240bn. That's a fact easily found from government or international sources. Again, your first port of call can be Wikipedia - you might not want to just quote from them as they are sometimes wrong, but they almost always give an original source that you can check. (In fact Wikipedia at its best is superb.) 

The Express story also omitted to mention that we may not get a trade deal with India.

Image abuse 
Images used online will often turn out to be mislabelled or irrelevant. The left does this as well as the right. Last year lots of people shared a meme showing huge crowds of people attempting to board a ship. “These aren’t Syrians,” said the angry caption. “They’re Europeans trying to get to North Africa during World War II. So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.”

The Vlora arrives at Bari from Durres, 1991
The meme had been spread very widely (by my friends among others), but something was not right. First, the images were in colour. The Second World War was photographed in colour, but not much, and mainly only by the German and US press corps. It seemed unlikely either would have shot this. Also, merchant ships in the 1940s had a more angular structure.

When you smell a rat like this, the first step is to do a reverse image search and see if you can come up with the pic in its original context. (Google gives handy instructions on how to do that here.) This often works straightaway, but in this case the pics had been so widely shared that most results just showed the meme. What did work, was to search instead for the name of one of its ships and its port of registry, both of which were clearly visible on its stern. This turned up the pics in their real context and where they had really been taken; they were Albanians at the Italian port of Bari in 1991. This made sense, as the ship’s port of registry was Durres. It should be said that this set of images was misrepresented by the right as well as the left.

Lies, damn lies and... 
...Statistics. We are not all adept at reading these.  I found this out with a vengeance when I first tried to crunch the numbers I brought back from my PhD fieldwork. I struggled through with “how-to” books (the current choice includes Statistics without Tears, Statistics Done Wrong, Statistics for Dummies and, interestingly, How to Lie with Statistics – I must get that). The upside is that whoever throws a bunch of numbers at you may not know what they’re talking about either. The first step, if the story, post or comment quotes a source, is to check it. It may turn out to be completely specious. If you cannot find it, you can simply say so. If you can find a reliable figure that contradicts it, so much the better (more below on where to find such numbers).

 What if the other side can supply a source? The answer then is to go to that source, and see whether the numbers actually mean what you’ve been told they do. In the argument about renewables quoted above, my interlocutor was quoting the scale of subsidies to solar per kilowatt hour. As stated, I couldn’t find his figures. But what I did find was that figures for power supplied by renewables should carry a big health warning. Are you talking about generation capacity; about actual power generation; or about the output supplied to the grid? In the latter case, are you looking at the amount received by the grid or the distributed power from renewables? (Solar and wind produces surplus power that can’t be used sometimes, so these won’t be the same figure.

That’s a subtle example. The misuse of figures can be a lot more crass than that – as when, before the referendum, we heard “scare stories” about the number of refugees coming into the EU; these never mentioned that Britain wasn’t accepting more than a tiny fraction. Sometimes a number quoted is simply not relevant; again, before Brexit, the figure of 77m Turkish immigrants was used to scare people. They were not told that Turkish accession to the EU is a long way away and that in any case, Turkey has much closer links with Germany than it does with Britain.

You may also find that the number is quoted without comparators, so that you can’t see if it’s meaningful – as in the Daily Express “Indian trade deal” example above.

Refuted already? 
It sounds obvious, but perhaps someone has already called out the author of a fake news item. In the case of the Albanian ship example, they hadn’t (they have since). But it’s easy to check. Extract a few well-chosen key words from the article and search online. Take one of the more outrageous statements, copy-and-paste it into the “exact word or phrase” box in Google Advanced Search, and see if someone has already quoted that statement – and then taken it apart. 

If it’s been widely circulated, someone will already have checked it. A classic case was a picture sent to me after I made a vaguely pro-Corbyn tweet; it showed him at an IRA funeral. It did look like Corbyn but I suspected it wasn’t.  Fortunately someone else actually knew. The picture had been taken at Bobby Sands’s funeral in 1981 and the individual was apparently Sands’s agent, Owen Carron, who succeeded him as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It wasn't Jezza, actually
There are also websites that have been set up to fact-check stories that are whizzing around social media. The granddaddy of them all is, debunking urban legends since 1995. On the day I dropped by while writing this piece, the stories covered included a claim that former Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders had blown $172,000 in campaign donations on an Audi R8 supercar. (Snopes found no evidence of this.) Snopes appears to be genuinely independent and funded from advertising revenue. A site with a similar mission, albeit very different in style, is Hoax Slayer (, based in Queensland. This has also been around for a while. It devotes much energy to email scams, but also has a fake-news section that touches on the political now and then. The day I called by, it had zeroed in on a story that Monica Lewinsky’s son David had been found dead in Central Park. (It pointed out that Lewinsky did not have a son called David.)

For British readers, however, the go-to is probably Full Fact ( This is a heavyweight; it has the cachet of actually being a registered charity, a status that the Charity Commission was initially reluctant to grant it, and which it can remove if the site becomes too political. The trustees of Full Fact include members of the great and the good such as prominent LibDem peer Lord Sharkey and crossbencher Baroness Neuberger DBE, and funding comes from such impeccably liberal sources as the Rowntree Foundation (though also from some businesses – but these are publicly declared, and accounted for only 8% of income in 2015). A measure of Full Fact’s topicality can be seen from the 2017 General Election. Many media sources ascribed the results to the youth vote, but Full Fact quickly posted an item pointing out that no-one could possibly know yet, as there were simply no figures.  Especially attractive is an item headed Election 2017: what the parties haven’t told voters, an object lesson in why everything should be taken with a skipload of salt.

But if no-one’s refuted it yet? How do I do so? 
Sites like Full Fact are great at dealing with memes and urban myths that have attracted widespread attention. But what about the man who lives two doors up and posted a reply on one of your Facebook threads saying that ten thousand refugees are settling in Tonbridge every day, or that Europe is totally dependent on Britain for supplies of bendy bananas? Where are you going for the real facts?

For Brits, the first place should probably the Office for National Statistics ( This has been around since 1996, but is descended from the Central Statistical Office, which had its origins in the second world war.  The ONS is independent of the political arm of government, and covers a wide range of subjects, including the economy and areas that are politically sensitive, such as migration (its latest Migration Statistics Quarterly Report was in May 2017 and is here, complete with a useful summary). Datasets are normally presented with definitions, including qualifications and exclusions. The ONS is a big haunted house, but if one searches for long enough, one can often find what one needs. Thus this afternoon a  conservative journalist tweeted that Britain’s population had risen by 5 million in 5 years and that this was a good reason for Brexit. It took me minutes to find out, on the ONS site, that the figure was untrue, and I tweeted back a link to the relevant page. The ONS site also has instructions on how to submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

Not just for MPs
Should you need your information in a more digestible form, you can head for the House of Commons Library. This  has a mass of research and information put together over the years to help MPs, including an impressive list of research briefings on (for example) social care, poverty and pensions – all topical. Much of this information might also be available on the ONS site if you know where to look, but the HoC Library might be easier. The website also has an impressive subsite providing information on Brexit and its projected consequences; it can be found here. For economic and budgetary information, there’s also the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), intended as an independent watchdog on budgetary and economic matters. Its mandate is to provide facts, not to pass judgement on policy; it won’t tell you that a policy is a good or bad idea, but will outline the fiscal consequences.

Many countries have similar offices and the OBR helpfully provides links to them on its own page. In the US, if you’re a member of Congress you might well ask your party leadership to submit your request to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has lately been busy costing, among other things, the latest healthcare options as Republicans prepare to scrap Obamacare. The CBO is meant to be strictly nonpartisan. Specialist US government agencies also have information available on their websites (including the US Energy Information Administration, referred to earlier). Both these offices have a mass of information and data on their websites.

In the international arena, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and specialist UN and other transnational agencies all provide reservoirs of online information on matters such as poverty, access to education, health and more. To list them would take too much space, and in any case Wikipedia has a handy list of the UN bodies here. However, it is worth mentioning two that are worth visiting if you frequently argue with people over refugees or asylum seekers; these are the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Both have stats; UNHCR, in particular, has figures on the top refugee-hosting countries (hint: they’re not rich ones). It also points out that 55% of refugees are from three war-torn countries, casting doubt on the belief that most are economic migrants. 

Last but not least, Google is your friend. The advanced search facility allows you to specify accurate and specific search parameters. It can be set to return only recent results. It also permits a domain-specific search, so that if you want to find out when the OBR, say, or the BBC has referred to a particular topic, you can. This is sometimes much quicker and more accurate than using the search engines on the sites themselves, and presents the search results in a helpful hierarchy of relevance.

Learn your craft 
Many people’s online activism is devalued from the start because they don’t have any tradecraft. Some of us will never be very good with PCs, websites etc.; that’s just how it is, especially for older people like me. But often the tools are easier to master than they seem, and doing so can give you a huge advantage.

No, Bernie didn't buy an Audi R8 with campaign contributions
If you’re fighting battles on Facebook, and you want friends to help – informally, or as part of an activist group – learn how to help them help you. If you are dealing with a mendacious troll on the Facebook site of (say) a newspaper, you need to give people the exact link, not just say “please help me on the Express Facebook page”. If you do that they won’t find the post or thread, as newspaper sites can post tens of stories a day. It’s like calling in an airstrike without giving a map reference.

To get the exact link, go to the post or comment. Just under the posters name or comment is the time at which they posted it (“just now”, “1hr ago”, “20 June at 20.00”, etc. Right-click on that date/time and a drop-down menu will appear, including the option “copy link”. Click on that then paste the link on your timeline of in a group where you are seeking help.Always remember that it is useless posting something that only a few people can see; you need to give your post the right privacy settings. Be aware that if you change them on a post, the next post may default to the same setting so you will need to change it again. 

To comment on a story on a newspaper’s own site, you will need to be signed in. The site will almost always offer you the option to do so with social media, but you can also set up an account for that newspaper, or (with a lot of publications, including the Spectator) with a service provider called Disqus. These can be better options than your Facebook or Twitter account if you wish to use a screen handle rather than your own name.

If you are involved in an argument on Twitter and need to ask friends or a group for help, you can get a link to the string by going to the small downward-facing arrow at the left of a tweet or reply; clicking on that will give you the option of displaying a tweet-specific link that you can then copy. If you have multiple battles going on and want your friends to come over and lend a hand, tell them to go to your Twitter profile and to click on the tab “Tweets and replies”; otherwise they won’t see your conversations and arguments, only your original tweets. Learn also how to use hashtags – this is very important; Twitter provides instructions here. You can use them on Facebook too and there are instructions (rather sketchy) here.

Last but not least, one does not want to state the obvious but: Who are you talking to? If you want to argue on behalf of refugees, do it in the comments section of a paper where people are unconvinced. This could be the Express or Mail but could also be the New Statesman or Telegraph. It sounds basic, but you will not change minds by talking only to those who agree with you.

Don’t give up 
All this is important. We are at war. Back in 1977 Paul Johnson, Boris's uncle, published a book called Enemies of Society, in which he castigated all those who made meaningless or unverified statements. They would, he said, destroy the basic certainties societies need to function. The book was written from a right-wing perspective; Johnson was a polemicist. But he was not wrong about this. Hannah Arendt made a similar point, in a very different way, from farther left, in her essay On Lying in Politics.

Check everything. Question it all. The enemies of society have not won yet, but there is not much time. Lies are a luxury we can’t afford.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)